By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Alon Hacohen had been playing football in adult leagues for years, but as guys hit their thirties, they had kids and moved to the 'burbs. By chance, an online search for a league that played exclusively in Manhattan led Hacohen to "New York Flag Football." A year later, he got a response—from the "New York Gay Flag Football League."
Working in the flower industry, Hacohen, who is 36 and in a committed relationship with a girlfriend, was always comfortable around gay men, but even so . . . "I was reticent—not because it was a gay league, but I was used to a high level of play," he recalls. "After the first pick-up game, there were guys who could really play, and I got excited."
Hacohen was the first straight player in the league's very first season in 2005. Now it has more than 200 members— including about a dozen straight guys who play "fag football" every season. The gay Big Apple Softball League fields some teams that are more than half straight. Estimates place the gay-bowling league at around 20 percent straight. In fact, every gay-sports league in the city probably has at least one straight player.
When Jeff Kagan founded the New York City Gay Hockey Association in 1999, there were only "one or two straight guys." Now, half of the entire league's membership is straight—a dynamic that Kagan (who has been at the forefront of fighting homophobia in the stands at New York Rangers games) welcomes.
One of those straight (and married) guys is Jim Davis, 33, a Chelsea resident who's been playing in the New York City Gay Hockey Association for several years. His wife, who played hockey at MIT, discovered the group, which welcomes both men and women to the ice. "I remember thinking it was a bit strange that my wife was playing with a gay team," he says. "It was just a new concept to me. I don't think I'd ever seen anything like that—gays playing sports."
Like many of the other straight jocks interviewed for this article, Davis had initially played with a straight team at Chelsea Piers. But he found straight teams overly competitive, not interested in developing players, and unfriendly. The Hot Shots of the NYCGHA, by contrast, were "so nice. It was such a different experience from playing with the straight team."
Jason Klatsky, 30, of the Upper East Side, discovered he could join a gay friend at the football league, and found himself returning year after year because of the camaraderie: "Over the past three seasons, I find it amazing that there hasn't been one person on any one of my teams that has made me feel like an outsider," he says. "Maybe I just get along with gay guys better."
His wife, Meredith, has also found a home in the league. Unlike straight leagues, where she was invisible to Jason's teammates, referees and fans literally embrace her and make her feel part of an extended family. "It sounds funny to say 'Gay guys are just nicer,' but I don't know another common denominator," Klatsky says.
Why would any straight man find his way into a gay-sports league? The straights in gay leagues find themselves continually answering that question. I'll bet you, the reader, are thinking: "These guys must be gay. Or at least curious."
Not Tal Hacohen, 29, who followed his brother Alon to the football league. He shrugs off straight friends who ask if he's a closet case or looking for some bi action on the side. True, in his first season, Tal won a league award for "Player Most People Would Like to Sleep With." But Tal's a ladies' man.
"When I first joined the NYGFL and learned of certain 'straight' players, I chuckled," says a player who goes by the name of Miss Beth Israel, 28, a charter member of flag football. "I must admit, it was that judgmental chuckle only reserved for those late-night Internet hookups with those 'straight' or 'bi- curious' guys looking for 'oral service only with no reciprocation.' " Miss Beth has since learned to take straight players at their word—although she takes extra pride in sacking a straight quarterback: "Reparations are a bitch," she laughs.
Players' gaydar goes off "because someone's really good-looking or really friendly with everyone," Kagan says. "But I think you get that wherever you are. I think people project their desires."
Ironically, one of the big draws for straight men is that gay-sports leagues generally don't have rules on how many women must be on a team or how many have to be playing at any given time. ZogSports' eight-on-eight touch-football league mandates that three women must be on the field at all times, and that a team can't run three consecutive offensive plays to a man. Likewise, its 10-player softball league requires four women on the field at all times, and no more than three men are permitted to bat in a row. While there are some women in the gay leagues, there aren't any such restrictions. That's appealing to some hyper-competitive straight guys.
When the question of quotas does arise, it's usually about straight players. Local gay softball, football, and hockey leagues don't limit their numbers. When Mike Yang, 41, of Inwood, found the Big Apple Softball League 10 years ago, he was just coming out. The league offered him a fun, safe place to meet other gay people and express his inner Mike Piazza. He yearns for the '70s, when the league was first and foremost for gay people: "Now we're basically saying, 'Hey, you kids who are just coming out—we don't have space for you, because we have so many straight people taking up spots.' "
The main target of his feelings last year was Team Super G, captained by Peter DeSouza. Of the 18 people on his team this season, 14 are straight—mostly co-workers and friends of co-workers. Formed in 2005, Super G has done very well, drawing attention to the preponderance of straight people on his team. "It's human nature to want to compete and have an advantage," Yang says. "So people started asking all their co-workers and college buddies to play, and straight people started saturating the teams. It started innocently in the beginning, but then they started taking over the teams."
DeSouza's straight players aren't exactly superstars; if he wanted to pick players simply based on skill, his team would look very different: "Some people thought I brought in straight players in order to win, and I find that offensive. Who's to say straight players are better than gay players? I've seen a lot of gay players in our league who are far superior to any of the people I've brought on."
Still, debate rages on whether it's a good thing that a gay softball league team is mostly straight. On the flip side, having straight players in the league reflects and aids the increasingly casual relationship between straight and gay men that we're seeing every day in New York City in our houses of worship, the workplace, and dance clubs. To keep straight men out of gay-sports leagues—when for so long we've complained that straight men were keeping gay people out of sports—is coming to seem like bad sportsmanship.
Yang recently proposed a motion at a Big Apple Softball League meeting to officially limit the number of straight players on any team. Of the 40 voting members present, 39 opposed it. The league's solution: They moved DeSouza's team, along with three other teams, into a more competitive division.
Mike Pinelli, 48, of Tudor City, a founder of the NYGFL and a softball-team captain, says he'd quit any league that put quotas on straight or gay people. "It never crossed my mind that anyone would even care that straight people were playing in a gay league," he says. As of this writing, Yang's team was leading his newly restructured division—with the aid of straight players.
Some gay-sports organizations and events do, however, place a limit on straights. The Gay Super Bowl, the national gay flag-football championship held every year (last October at East River Park), limits the number of het players to 20 percent of a team's roster. The annual Gay Softball World Series has a limit of two straight players on any team.
Jokes of forced sexual acts to prove your sexuality abound—with plenty of volunteers to vet the cute straight ones. Still, limits and restrictions on who can compete in sports competitions are not a new concept. The Maccabiah Games, for example, which are held every four years, limit participation to Jews and Israeli citizens.
Even if the exclusion of straight men in gay leagues may not be overt in New York City, there are some subtle signals that "straights are not welcome." Not a single straight man has ever been a finalist for the New York Gay Football League's MVP Award. A straight newcomer won the Rookie of the Season Award earlier this year over the protests of many gay members.
Alon Hacohen is saddened "that some people who have been excluded all their lives would immediately go to the place of exclusion. If you're going to have an MVP Award, it should be for the most valuable player on the field, whether they're gay or straight." Hacohen himself usually withholds his name from consideration for such an award.
In any event, the fact is that most—but by no means all—of the best players are gay. During the Gay Football League's seven seasons in existence, only one championship has been won by a straight quarterback (Alon Hacohen). And though straights are often accused of being overly aggressive and competitive, it's the gay men who advocate the "Winning is the only thing" philosophy.
"I think it's easy to say that a person's overly competitive because he's straight," Pinelli says. "People like Alon get fingers pointed at them, but they're no less aggressive than plenty of gay people in the league. It's a competitive environment, and that increases aggression and passion from everyone. We're not serving tea and cookies out here."
Gay players can feed into the drama-queen stereotype. Despite the coming- out of many top-level professional and college athletes, such as former NFL players Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo and former New York Giant Roy Simmons, the notion of the screaming hissy fit continues. But just by being there and being comfortable, straight players are fighting stereotypes—on both sides. "Straight people are going out and talking to their straight friends about their positive experience with gay people and how well they play sports," Pinelli says. "That's the biggest benefit of having them in the league."
Every straight man I talked to expressed himself in similarly glowing terms. They all seem to understand that the gay-sports leagues have a purpose beyond just the sport itself. In fact, while he's an important mentor and player in the football league, Seth Greenleaf sees himself as a guest of the league.
"I'm sensitive to the fact that this league serves a purpose for these guys, and I never want to lose sight of that," Greenleaf says. "If this were my straight friends and me, the winning would be more important, the intensity would be higher, the violence would be higher—and I like all that, too, but I take into account that this is some people's first experience, and I want them to have good experiences. There are shifted priorities in this league, and I want to respect that."
Alon Hacohen has found a permanent home in the NYGFL, rumors, finger-pointing, and all. "This is by far the best league I've ever been a part of," he says, "and I'd never dream of leaving it just because I play with gay men. Unless they kick me out."